Fireworks: An Explosive Morality Issue Essay, Research Paper
Change and Tradition, Summer I
June 2, 2000
Firecrackers: An Explosive Morality Issue
“Pop! Bam! Boom!” These are the sounds one hears passing by a Chinatown around February of every year. Indeed, these are the sounds of firecrackers, which are distinctive features Chinese people use to welcome a new beginning on Chinese New Year. According to older generations, firecrackers are considered not only a sign of getting rid of the old and welcoming the new, but are also believed to be able to dispel the evils. As a result, Chinese families deem the activity as an important one, and in turn, the moral debate continues to arise. However, it appears that this tradition is kept at the expense of innocent people?s lives. However, can anyone imagine how many people have died or have been injured by these explosive devices? An event of happy celebration frequently ends up being a tragic one. This leaves questions that need to be answered: Should people?s lives be sacrificed in order to keep the tradition of a New Year celebration? Does a ritual time of joy outweigh the grief it causes?
Ling is a Chinese man who happens to be a Taoist. Taoism is one of the great philosophical and religious traditions that originated in China. The goal in Taoism is to be one with Tao, to find “the way.” Ling respects the long-held Chinese tradition of setting off fireworks in celebration of the Chinese New Year, no matter what the consequence. As a Taoist, he seeks to become one with the celebration (the New Year) itself, and becoming one includes a traditional fireworks display. This quest for oneness with the fireworks stems from Ling?s Taoist belief in the importance of ritual.
For Chinese people, both in China and in ethnic communities around the world, the New Year is the most important and most festive ritual holiday of the year. Throughout centuries of China’s agrarian tradition, this was the one period when farmers could rest from their work in the fields. Family members from near and far would travel to be with loved ones in time to usher out the old year and welcome in the new, with great celebratory flourish. The Chinese people have, for thousands of years, been building on ancient customs of New Year celebrations. Although they may vary from region to region and even family to family according to social position, many of these customary rituals are still observed. Today, shops do a flurry of business selling gifts, new clothes and festive foods, kitchens are bustling with preparations for elaborate feasts, and streets are filled with the sounds of firecrackers and New Year?s greetings (Cayton 4). This emphasis on ritual is a primary focus for a Taoist like Ling, enabling other worldly concerns to be insignificant.
Specifically, the potential for human harm does not distress Ling, for he is not concerned with his individual needs. Death is obviously not an issue, as exemplified by the Lao-Tzu?s words in the Tao Te Ching: “Tao endures. Your body dies” (16). It is only when Ling rids himself of all worries that he can achieve true wu-wei (oneness with Tao). In the writings of the Tao Te Ching, Tao is described as formless, standing alone without change and reaching everywhere without harm (Lao-Tzu xii). Ling uses the light that is inside of him to revert to the natural clearness of sight, a value described in the Tao Te Ching. By divesting himself of all external distractions and desires, he achieves wu-wei (Lao-Tzu xiii). Such a meaningful ritual as the fireworks celebrating the Chinese New Year unites people in their joy. This is the heart of the flow of the Tao.
Together, the Chinese are one with the ritual of celebrating the New Year. The following translation from the Tao Te Ching best summarizes the theory behind Tao and how a Taoist like Ling can achieve wu-wei: “The Great Way is very smooth, but the people love the by-paths. . . The wearing of gay embroidered robes, the carrying of sharp swords, fastidiousness in food and drink, superabundance of property and wealth? this I call flaunting robbery; most assuredly it is not Tao. . . He who acts in accordance with Tao, becomes one with Tao. . .Being akin to Heaven, he possesses Tao. Possessed of Tao, he endures forever. . . Being great (Tao) passes on; passing on, it becomes remote; having become remote, it returns (Lao-Tzu 79). As a Taoist, Ling seeks this inner light, and is not distracted by the extravagance of fireworks display itself. This notion is a part of The Tao Te Ching and is stated, “The path to Tao is individual, it comes from within” (Lao-Tzu 24). No one defines a path for the Taoist; it is internally aroused according to the way. Taoists believe there is an inner light evolving from past experiences, which guides a person in the right direction towards intuitive unity. By shunning every earthly distractions and “living in the moment,” Ling is able to concentrate on life itself. Statistics on injuries and deaths related to fireworks presentations are not relevant at this time of festivity. In his case, fireworks are not distractions, but the anxiety of fireworks protestors is hindrance to Ling?s harmonious life. In essence, Ling takes a total non-confrontational, non-involved outlook on this issue of whether or not fireworks should continue to be displayed.
On the other side of this matter, a Ling?s best friend Bill, a Legalist, deems that fireworks are a dangerous ritual that should be forbidden. In Ancient China, Legalism successfully put fear and respect of the law and government into the people. The harshness of the Legalism is what Bill values in society. Although memories of the abuse of the law under Legalism have been placed in a bad light throughout Chinese history, many parts of Legalism are sustained today. Bill believes that benevolence has no place in ruling a state because “unless people are ruled by a strong, strict hand, they grow lazy and disrespectful of authority” (Cayton 44). For this reason, Bill insists that fireworks need to be suppressed due to their inevitable danger. Bill strongly believes that punishments for those who use fireworks should be severe and definite, and that there should be no pardons granted in administering punishment. Discussions of morality and human nature are irrelevant to him. Taoism looks to the past as the ideal and tries to recreate the past– (Fireworks are tradition. They should be allowed.) Legalism disregards the past?(Fireworks are harmful to society. Even if they are tradition, fatalities continue to exist.) In Bill?s opinion, if fireworks continue, there will continue to be disorder and harm done to people.
Keeping order is a top priority for a Legalist like Bill. If that means forbidding fireworks because of their danger, then Bill supports that. Bill is focused on maintaining conformity and following through with rewards and punishments for behavior is the best method for doing that. If asked to give a speech detailing his specific motives for opposing fireworks, Bill might state: “Firecrackers can lead to significant casualties if people don?t use them appropriately. In recent years, firecrackers have been banned in some states in America. There are a total of 11 states that ban all types of firecrackers while some states only allow few types of firecrackers. The most lenient states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida still allow all types of firecrackers” (Cayton 148). “The administration of some states has refused to allow the setting off of firecrackers during Chinese New Year celebration because these state governments believe that these explosives are too dangerous” (Cayton 149).
Bill might go on to articulate that, “In addition to its explosiveness, firecrackers are hazardous to people?s health and lives. First of all, firecrackers can trigger illness caused by inhaling the smoke generated by firecrackers. Furthermore, many children do not realize the danger firecrackers can cause and are often burned and injured by these devices. Firecrackers can physically harm even adults if they do not pay enough attention. Moreover, damages such as explosions and fires caused by firecrackers can be immense” (Cayton 156). Bill might also add, “Other activities and events such as ?dragon and lion parades,? family dinners and celebrations exist to welcome the arrival of the New Year. To be safe and to really enjoy the celebration without any concerns, other activities can be emphasized over the firecracker displays. Instead of having many of these displays by each individual household, a bigger and safer display can be held at an open air location where the probability of disaster can be minimized” (Cayton 150). Such are some of the fundamental reasons why Bill believes fireworks are a tragedy waiting to happen. If for some reason people were unable to react to Bill?s testimony, he might impose punishment. If someone were in complete agreement with him, he would likely suggest a reward. Thus is the fundamental nature of Bill?s Legalist doctrine.
In response to Bill, Ling might affirm, “humans hate to be alone, poor, and hungry. Yet kings and princes use words as titles. We gain by losing?” (Lao-Tzu 42) In other words, if people die from fireworks, it is the Tao of the fireworks display. It is not up to a person to ponder the meaning of the death. It is simply the way, and all creation flows with this way. To further enlighten Bill, Ling might cite, “Those who control, fail. Those who grasp, lose” (Lao-Tzu 29). These wise words from the Tao Te Ching mean that it would be useless to attempt to forbid fireworks because success would invariably not follow. Ling is of the belief that wu-wei is the best means of existing. Ultimately, Ling?s simplistic outlook on the fireworks morality issue is a sharp contrast to the assertively political view of Bill.
After pondering Ling?s beliefs on the Tao and thinking over Bill?s Legalist views on fireworks, I came to the conclusion that although firecracker displays serve symbolic celebrations, the potential danger that accompanies them cannot be ignored. At some point, the negatives must be weighed in order to determine the usage during commemorations. This way, the tradition can remain to serve its purpose while mitigating the negative effects. Though this is my opinion, I do believe that if the issue of fireworks were a real debate, it would be necessary to further study the ethics of both sets of beliefs as well as to gather more statistical information. It is a fact that some states do have stricter laws than others concerning selling and setting off fireworks. It might be a good idea to restrict fireworks in more states. Or perhaps if there were more information on the potential harm cause by fireworks, fewer accidents would occur. Regardless, people need to be made aware of the potential for harm continues to exist. To truly enjoy the celebration without any concerns, a “happy medium” between these two viewpoints would be best.
Lao-Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis:
Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
Cayton, Andrew. www.msn.com. “China: Pathways to the Present: Legalism in Ancient
China.” Associated Press, November, 1998.